Buccaneers Offseason Rewind, Vol. 4

In January Bucsblitz.com profiled the Top 10 priorities for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the 2008 offseason. How did the Bucs do? Well, Matthew Postins sifts through those each of those 10 priorities in this new series and grades the Bucs on everything from coaching changes to splashy free-agent moves. Today he grades how the team approached the running game.

PRIORITY FOUR: DECIDE WHAT THEY WILL DO AT RUNNING BACK WITHOUT CARNELL WILLIAMS.

WHAT I SAID THEN:

Williams probably will not be ready for the start of training camp. There's a slim chance he could be ready by the regular-season opener. But it's more likely that Williams will begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list and be unavailable until midseason.

That means Earnest Graham, the team's leading rusher in 2007, would be the No. 1 running back entering training camp. The Bucs have all but said so. The Bucs and Graham's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, are pursuing a contract extension for the back.

But beyond Graham, there could be serious problems. Michael Bennett is an unrestricted free agent. Michael Pittman has two years left on his deal, but they're both voidable years. Bucs GM Bruce Allen said Thursday he expects Pittman to become a free agent.

If that's the case, Kenneth Darby, who ended the season on the active roster, would be Graham's immediate backup.

Ouch.

With a young offensive line that is built to block for the run and an offense that seems more successful when it caters to the ground game, finding capable complements to Graham would seem to be a big need.

And it may be nothing more than re-signing Bennett and Pittman. They both offer the Bucs a different style of runner. Bennett is a speed demon with slashing ability, and the few times he carried the ball this season he showed flashes of big-play potential. With a full offseason in Jon Gruden's system, he said he felt confident he could make huge strides.

Pittman is the "Joker," as Gruden likes to call him. His chief attributes are blitz pickups and receiving out of the backfield. But Graham made so much progress with both facets this season that Pittman may choose to find another team.

If the Bucs re-sign neither of them, they're going to have to act during the offseason, because they cannot count on Williams being back by August (even though that's what they're hoping for). They'll either have to pursue a free agent or spend a high draft pick on a running back, the latter of which I assume the Bucs do not want to do because they still consider Williams their future.

Either way, the backfield bears watching.

WHAT I SAY NOW?

There is a belief among most that the Buccaneers did enough to protect themselves at running back this season.

We'll start with Williams, and my words written in January appear to be ringing true. A published report a couple of weeks ago has the Bucs considering the very thing I wrote about — putting Williams on PUP. As I wrote a week ago, that's not an indictment on Williams' rehab, which has gone well. It just underscores the severity of Williams' injury and how delicate he must be treated until his knee is 100 percent.

The Bucs solidified the front part of their backfield by extending Graham's contract through 2011. Graham nearly rushed for 900 yards last year and proved that despite his height (only 5-foot-8) he had the strength and toughness to be a No. 1 back. Now Graham must prove that he can do it from the start of the season, when it's expected of him.

The Bucs further improved their depth by re-signing Bennett and signing former Bucs back Warrick Dunn to a two-year contract. At first glance, I found the Dunn signing curious, since Dunn and Bennett are basically the same back — short, quick and spry. But Dunn fits the type of signing head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen like to make — a veteran player who still has playmaking ability and can contribute in a limited role. Dunn is also a better pass catcher than Bennett, whose is best used in stretch plays that allow him to choose a hole and maximize his track-star speed.

The Bucs also still have Darby and their seventh-round choice, Cory Boyd, from South Carolina. Pittman eventually left as a free agent.

If the Bucs put Williams on PUP, then expect all five of the remaining backs to make the team in some fashion, with Graham as the starter, Dunn and Bennett as his backups and Darby as a special teams contributor. Boyd will most likely start the season on the practice squad.

I think there's about a 5 percent chance that Williams will pass his physical at training camp. If he does, it could muck up the rotation in training camp and provide more drama than the team needs. To me, letting Williams go on PUP and allowing him to return in October, hopefully at 100 percent, is the best option the Bucs have.

At least if it works out that way, the Bucs appear to have put together a solid plan for life without Williams, however long that life may be.

Did you miss our previous editions of "Buccaneers Rewind? Just click below to read more about how the Bucs did this offseason:

Vol. 1.

Vol. 2.

Vol. 3.


Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald.


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